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On Writing In Constraints by Jacqueline Carey

Cassiel's Servant by Jacqueline CareyWriters love a challenge and today Jacqueline Carey, author of Kushiel’s Dart and the upcoming companion novel, Cassiel’s Servant, joins us on the blog to discuss the constraints around writing. Check it out here!


By Jacqueline Carey

I enjoy writing in constraints.

I’m not talking about the kind that come with straps and buckles and blindfolds… although to be fair, I’ve written about those constraints more than your average fantasy author. When your heroine has been chosen by the angel of punishment to experience pleasure in pain, you’ve got to expect a healthy dose of spice.

No, literary constraints are what I’m talking about. CASSIEL’S SERVANT is a companion novel. It mirrors KUSHIEL’S DART at every step of the way. From the outset, we see our protagonists embark as children on parallel paths, growing into the roles that will define them. And once their paths merge, the entirety of Joscelin’s actions and dialogue in CASSIEL’S SERVANT is constrained by the framework of KUSHIEL’S DART. And since that novel was narrated by Phèdre nó Delaunay, who misses little and forgets less, there wasn’t a whole lot of wiggle room in terms of events.

So why write it?

A number of years ago, I wrote a poem on commission for a benefit. I pledged an Elizabethan sonnet and polled readers. Overwhelmingly, fans wanted a love poem from Joscelin, my stoic warrior-priest, to Phèdre, the daring courtesan who stole his heart. For the first time, Joscelin spoke. Not just lines of dialogue—he opened up his inner narrative. And it turns out that my taciturn hero given to letting his blades talk for him is more thoughtful and self-aware than I knew, with a keen sense of the absurd.

I wasn’t sold on it right away. I took a detour into the desert with a different warrior brotherhood in STARLESS, but it wasn’t enough to silence Joscelin’s inner voice. It was stuck in my head like a refrain. Finally, I allowed myself to imagine what Phèdre and Joscelin’s journey might look like through his eyes.

A lot different.

One thing about constraints, they force you to be creative, patient and diligent. My Sundering duology was constrained by the concept—LORD OF THE RINGS reenvisioned as epic tragedy. It was constrained by copyright issues that meant I had to recreate Tolkien’s plot structure and build a world to support it in forms that were at once original and yet recognizable as mirrors of the source material.

More recently, MIRANDA AND CALIBAN is a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest which was wholly constrained by the original source material. There’s a lot of empty space between the beginning and the ending of that play. Like twelve years’ worth! It allows room for creative improvisation.

Side note: Renaissance magic is wwaaaayy more boring than you might expect. My commitment to historical authenticity forged some surprising constraints. Renaissance magic is mostly astrology and casting horoscopes. Kind of like a slumber party for gouty mathematicians and their wealthy patrons.

In some ways, CASSIEL’S SERVANT might be the tightest literary squeeze yet. I had to adhere to my own original source material. Once we left the Prefectory of the Cassiline Brotherhood, there were very few opportunities for improvisation within the strictures of the plot.

But it doesn’t necessarily take a lot of space to land a knockout.

One thing (among many) for which Bruce Lee was famous was the “one-inch punch,” featured in various Southern Chinese martial arts styles. According to Wikipedia and the countless kung fu movies I watched in college, this is a skill which generates tremendous amounts of impact force at extremely close distances. MythBusters registered the impact of a one-inch punch at 153 lbs with a force gauge. Uma Thurman one-inch punched her way out of a buried coffin in Kill Bill.

For me, writing with constraints requires a similar skill. It forces me to concentrate on extracting the maximum dramatic impact from any pivotal scene. And the one place of freedom, of expansiveness, of infinite possibility, within the story as it unfurls is inside of Joscelin himself.

There’s a lot of intrigue in KUSHIEL’S DART. Picking apart the tangled threads is one of the pleasures Phèdre’s perspective as a courtesan, spy and pawn in this ongoing game of crowns and thrones affords.

Joscelin, on the other hand, would be hard put to care less about political intrigue. It’s not just that he’s uninterested in it—it takes a shocking turn of events for him to fully grasp the fact that this frivolous-seeming assignment is deadly serious. It’s also due to the fact that House Verreuil is basically a D’Angeline version of “old money”. Political maneuvering and speculation are considered gauche. If you have some interesting thoughts on dog breeding or hydraulics, they’re all ears, but money and politics are things one does not discuss in polite society.

Fittingly, Joscelin’s life is circumscribed by constraint. As the middle son of an old aristocratic family, he’s pledged from birth to the Cassiline Brotherhood, bound by tradition and filial duty. He’s bound by his vows and his own sense of honor. Falling in love with Phèdre is the one-inch punch that turns his world upside down and shatters his heart to pieces. Writing in constraints has its rewards!

There are plenty of fight scenes in CASSIEL’S SERVANT and I loved writing them from Joscelin’s view in the thick of the fray—even during the numerous times he went down swinging in captivity. But for me, nothing lands as hard as that one-inch punch of true love.

Jacqueline Carey is the New York Timesbestselling author of the critically acclaimed and award-winning Kushiel’s Legacy series of historical fantasy novels. Recent novels include the Shakespearean adaptation Miranda and Caliban and the epic fantasy standalone Starless. Carey enjoys doing research on a wide variety of arcane topics, and an affinity for travel has taken her from Iceland to China to date. She currently lives in West Michigan.

Pre-order Cassiel’s Servant Here:

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1 thought on “On Writing In Constraints by Jacqueline Carey

  1. Will there be a follow up to Cassiel’s servant? That follows along with Kushiels dart?

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